New York, New York


Today is the fortieth anniversary of the New York Mets winning their first World Series. They took out the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles of Palmer and McNally in five games. Even as an ex-baseball fan who didn’t actually watch the series, I know the story all too well. My mother spent my baseball-crazed teenage years telling me the story of the Miracle Mets of ’69 over and over again. Cleon Jones wasn’t an unsung hero in our chaotic corner of the world!

Those were the years I began to get to know the city immediately south of Mount Vernon. Especially Manhattan. Between hunting down my father Jimme almost every weekend between the end of ’82 and the summer of ’87 at watering holes in the Bronx and in Midtown Manhattan in order to buy clothes, buy books, wash clothes and eat. And working for Jimme in spurts in the fall of ’84 and the summer of ’85. It was an interesting time working and milling about in what I’d eventually nickname the “Third Armpit of Hell.”

It was the Koch years, of graffiti and dangerous Subway rides, with puddles of piss on the floor and people dressed for a Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (with Full Force) video. There were plenty of weekends I looked forward to that kind of disarray. It easily beat the hum-drum of watching after four younger siblings, avoiding my idiot stepfather and a town with all of the excitement a bedroom suburb in search of an identity could muster on a Friday evening or late Saturday morning.

I didn’t come to fully understand the gnawing sensation I’d feel when walking through the diverse socioeconomic and ethnic sections of Mount Vernon until I started working for my father in September ’84. Jimme thought it’d be better for us to work for his money rather than us just coming over every week to get a few dollars. So off and on during that fall, Darren and me spent part of our weekends working for Jimme on various cleaning jobs on the Upper East Side going into Spanish Harlem, or on the Upper West Side near Lincoln Center and the West 72nd Street Subway station.

Whenever anyone asked me what Jimme did, I usually said, “Oh, my dad’s a carpet cleaner.” I didn’t see him as a simple janitor, although it was true that he cleaned stuff. But Jimme didn’t clean toilets or latrines or bathroom sinks and tubs. He cleaned the floors of office buildings — carpeted, wooden, or otherwise — thoroughly treating any surface he encountered with industrial cleaning machines. He cleaned high-rise co-ops and condos where the mortgage or rent payment per month was more than our rent at 616 for a year. It was an important job in his eyes, and I wasn’t going to diminish it because other folks couldn’t understand or wouldn’t have a clue as to the amount of labor involved in Jimme’s work.

I didn’t have much of an idea until I started working for him. Spending a Friday night or a Saturday or Sunday morning working with Jimme was no easy task. We’d have to walk over to Jimme’s — or catch the 7 and get off in downtown Mount Vernon and then walk over — and get him, then get on the 2 at East 241st and get off at 72nd Street. If we were lucky Jimme might’ve had the cleaning machines at home with him and would take them on the Subway to the job. If we weren’t, we’d have to walk over to Jimme’s job at 20 East 64th to get them, all the while dealing with the mafioso-like Levi brothers Glen and Bruce (pronounced Lee-vy, not like the Levi’s Jeans). They often treated us like we had severe mental retardation.

The work was hot, hard, and boring, and with my imagination, I’d sometimes forgot that I was buffing a floor, drawing anger from Jimme. “Bo’, don’ be messin’ around with them machines,” Jimme would say. Sometimes he would mumble in anger, so much so that I thought that we were about to fight. So one thing we did to help us pass the time was to buy a standard AM/FM radio with an antenna. It kept us from getting lost in thought. This was the way I could keep up with music, with my Mets, Giants, Knicks, and Rangers, and pass the time while concentrating on the work.

Jimme decided after a couple of weeks to treat us by taking us to a Mets game. Not only was this our first time at Shea. It was the first time we’d been to any sporting event, unless you count the Ice Capades with ’76 Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill at Madison Square Garden in March ’78 as one. It was a Tuesday night game near mid-September, the Mets desperately trying to catch up with the Cubs and first place in the division. It didn’t happen that cold night, as it dropped into the thirties. They lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 9-5. Keith Hernandez and George Foster hit home runs, and Darryl Strawberry got one little hit. We left after the Cardinals rallied late in the game, playing the role of spoiler and keeping a permanent underdog team like the Mets from making the postseason. As disappointed as I was, it was a wonderful experience going to see a game in person for the first time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that today also marks the fortieth birthday of my crush #2. It’s significant only in the sense that it reminds me that my perceptions of where I’ve lived and of my times has been shaped as much by the personalities that have populated my life as it has been by geography and circumstance. Seasons do change, crushes go away, and sports that were once faves become distant memories. But the fact that I got to see more than one side of New York and Mount Vernon has helped me understand more about the inevitability of change than I otherwise would’ve if my world had been limited to 616 and my family.

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